THERE ARE FADS in anguish. A few years ago,the pain of the unwed father was a vogue and before that, agonizing over the effects of prejudice on interracial marriage was au courant. We read of the suffering of the suburban housewife, the plight of the homosexual. And now, Bel Kaufman's new book deals with a type of woe that has received a lot of attention recently from journalists and sociologists: the plight of the middle-aged, divorced woman.
It's a difficult subject to handle competently because it is so laden with pathos. Loneliness and fear and anger abound. All the superficial writer has to do is skim the surface to come away with enough material for a facile novel or a made-for-television movie. In the first chapter or opening segment, we meet the 55-year-old protagonist. She mopes. Then she weeps. Next she rages. By the middle, she grows feisty and finally, in the last chapter (or just before the 11:00 news), she is named Queen of the Roll-O-Drome or Speech Therapist of the Year, while a coterie of supportive friends and adoring suitors applaud.
Thank goodness for Bel Kaufman. She it too intelligent and to humane to produce an easy tearjerker about the Forgotten Woman. In Up the Down Staircase, she showed her capacity for warmth and humor. In Love, etc., she shows she understands pain as well.
In fact, Love, etc., throbs with pain. But the reader is cushioned from its full effect by the padded structure of the book.
First, it is a novel within a novel. Jessica Proot Galen, an author, is writing a novel about a woman named Isabel Webb. After 25 years of marriage, Isabael is divorcing Edgar, the quintessential no-goodnik, a tightwad, a sadist, a gynecologist who performs unethical acts with his patients. Interspersed throughout Love, etc., are chapters of what is called "Jessica's 'Book'."
Then, preceding some of these chapters, are Jessica's "Notes to Myself," her jottings of ideas for writing the novel. For example: "Isabel has lost her sense of humor (proportion) totally. Her lists and her mind cluttered with jumble of large and trivial issues . . . In short scenes, imply this. Remember ruthless art of leaving things out."
Then there is Jessica's diary where she recounts her love affair with Maxwell Mahler and her musing on her own life and art. (Like her character, Isabel, Jessica is a middle-aged woman divorced after 29 years of marriage to a real louse, psychiatrist Charles Galen.)
Finally there is the correspondence between Jessica and her friend, Nina Moore. Nina, who studied in Jessica's fiction workshop, has written a bestseller and her letters are full of descriptions of the mad life of the successfull author: dashing from lecture to talk show, coping with Hollywood, trying to find time to get back to her real work, writing.
Compressed here, the structure sounds terribly confusing. It is less so in the novel. However, it is unnecessarily complicated. We jump from divorced Jessica to divorced Isabel, from rotten Dr. Galen to awful Dr. Webb, from Jessica's struggle to Nina's triumph. Rather than elaborating Bel Kaufman's themes, this baroque structure detracts from them. Just as we are beginning to comprehend Isabel's passive acceptance of her attorneys' ineptness, we are suddenly reading Maxwell's note to Jessica which is reproduced in her diary.
When employed by a master, unusual structural techniques can enrich a work. Charles Simmons' Wrinkles and Nabokov's Pale Fire are examples. In many novels, Kaufman's included, complexity merely complicates things by obscuring the story and distracting the reader.
But the feelings within Love, etc., are genuine. Isabel's masochism, her chilling acceptance of her husband's psychic beatings are moving and shocking. Jessica's adoration of Maxwell is understandable, even though he comes across as often odd and occasionally ridiculous: he buys a Cadillac in a color to match Jessica's eyes, a touch this reader at least found more appalling than endearing.
In one of her letters to Nina, Jessica, musing on her fiction workshop, writes: "Who was it who was supposed to have entered a creative writing class, looked at his students sitting hopefully, pens poised, said: 'I understand you all want to write. Go ahead.' -- and left, never to return?" There is wisdom in that vignette, and Bel Kaufman would have written a more moving novel if she had heeded it.
Love, etc. is so full of self-conscious fiction-workshop literary technique -- physicians named Galen, tedious explorations of the borders between life and art, illusion and reality -- that its greatest strength, the passions and complexity of its characters, is sabotaged. Kaufman should have gone ahead and written a single story. It is a powerful one, and she has what it takes to get below the surface: intellect and compassion.